Listen to this
Have you ever been listening to a great piece of music and felt a chill run up your spine? Or goosebumps tickle your arms and shoulders? Most people can experience a deep and visceral reaction to music, strong enough to elicit a physical, bodily response. The experience is called frisson (pronounced free-sawn), a French term meaning “aesthetic chills,” and it feels like waves of pleasure running all over your skin. Some researchers have even dubbed it a “skin orgasm.”
The criteria for these Strong Experiences with Music (SEM),” based loosely on Maslow’s “Peak Experience” (Maslow, 1962) include distinctiveness, ineffability, existential, or transcendental feelings, and, poignantly, physical sensations and powerful emotions. The psychophysiological experiences most reported in Gabrielsson’s (2011) study were tears (24% of participants), chills/shivers (10%), and piloerection, or gooseflesh (5%).
Listening to emotionally moving music (either happy or sad) is the most common trigger of frisson, but some feel it while looking at beautiful artwork, watching a particularly moving scene in a movie, or having physical contact with another person. It affects different parts of the body depending on the person and circumstances of induction, and retains similar sensory, evaluative, and affective biological and psychological components to sexual orgasm. Studies have shown that roughly two-thirds of the population feels frisson.
But why do some people experience frisson and not others?
Working in the lab of Dr. Amani El-Alayli, a professor of social psychology at Eastern Washington University, I decided to find out.
Musical passages that include unexpected harmonies, chord progressions descending the circle of fifths to the tonic, melodic appogiaturas, sudden changes in volume, or the moving entrance of a soloist are particularly common triggers for frisson because they violate listeners’ expectations in a positive way.
Psychophysiological moments of musical experience have been shown to incorporate the same neural reward pathways as such visceral pleasures as food and sex.
Frisson, described by Huron and Margulis (2011, p. 591) as “a musically induced affect that shows close links to musical surprise” and is associated with a “pleasant tingling feeling,” raised body hairs, and gooseflesh
We predicted that if a person were more cognitively immersed in a piece of music, then he or she might be more likely to experience frisson as a result of paying closer attention to the stimuli. And we suspected that whether or not someone would become cognitively immersed in a piece of music in the first place would be a result of his or her personality type.
To test this hypothesis, participants were brought into the lab and wired up to an instrument that measures galvanic skin response, a measure of how the electrical resistance of people’s skin changes when they become physiologically aroused. Participants were then invited to listen to several pieces of music as lab assistants monitored their responses to the music in real time.
Examples of pieces used in the study include:
- The first two minutes and 11 seconds of J.S. Bach’s “St. John’s Passion: Part 1—Herr, unser Herrscher”
- The first two minutes and 18 seconds of “Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1: II”
- The first two minutes of Hans Zimmer’s “Oogway Ascends”
Each of these pieces contains at least one thrilling moment known to cause frisson in listeners (several have been used in previous studies). For example, in the Bach piece, the tension built up by the orchestra during the first 80 seconds is finally released by the entrance of the choir—a particularly charged moment that’s likely to elicit frisson.
As participants listened to these pieces of music, lab assistants asked them to report their experiences of frisson by pressing a small button, which created a temporal log of each listening session.
By comparing this data to the physiological measures, and to a personality test the participants had completed, we were—for the first time—able to draw some unique conclusions about why frisson might be happening more often for some listeners than others.
Results from the personality test showed that the listeners who experienced frisson also scored high for a personality trait called “openness to experience.”
Studies have shown that people who possess this trait have unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life. Some aspects of this trait are inherently emotional (loving variety, appreciating beauty), while others are cognitive (imagination, intellectual curiosity).
While previous research had connected openness to experience with frisson, most researchers had concluded that listeners were experiencing frisson as a result of a deeply emotional reaction they were having to the music.
In contrast, the results of our study show it’s the cognitive components of openness to experience—such as making mental predictions about how the music is going to unfold or engaging in musical imagery (a way of processing music that combines listening with daydreaming)—that are associated with frisson to a greater degree than the emotional components.
These findings, recently published in the journal Psychology of Music, indicate that those who intellectually immerse themselves in music (rather than just letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely than others.
Is it addictive?
Blood and Zatorre (2001) showed a similar pattern of results with their focus on neural reward systems in their landmark 2001 PET study on musical frisson.
They found that listening to frisson-inducing music (relative to a control piece) corresponded with cerebral blood flow (CBF) changes to the midbrain, left ventral striatum, bilateral amygdala, left hippocampus, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These patterns may reflect a “craving” reflex similar to that surrounding responses to food, sex, and drugs of abuse (p. 11823). It is possible, then, that the reason we develop such affinity for frisson-inducing music is that once we experience musical frisson, we develop a dopaminergic anticipation for its return, effectively becoming slightly addicted to the musical stimulus.